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The Way We Were…memories of Canberra

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For most of us, childhood memories are strong.  They come from a time when life was easy and we were innocent and free from care.  Growing up, life seemed full of new and exciting adventures.

We often ask each other: what are your earliest recollections?  For me, it’s the simple stuff of home life, like constructing high jump equipment out of two stools and a dressing gown cord with my brother and sister and then spending hours in the lounge room jumping over it.  Or making mud pies in the backyard and then hurling them over the neighbour’s fence.

It’s things like going to the hospital (which was then the Canberra Community Hospital – homepage pic from ‘Old Canberran’ at the-riotact.com) on Sunday nights with my Dad, who was a doctor there, so he could do his ‘pre-meds’ – talking patients through their operations scheduled for the next day.  My siblings and I would hang out in one of the less-used visitor’s lounges, drinking free hot chocolate from a machine.  I remember these as good times.  Perhaps it also explains my fondness for hospitals, where many can’t abide them.

I remember riding to school with my siblings and then, once they moved on to high school, riding on my own and feeling a bit lonely.  I remember one day my school trousers got stuck in my bike chain and I had to sit on the pavement and wait until an older kid came and yanked them out for me.  And another time riding, when a bee got trapped under the arm of my skivvy and I heard it buzzing all the way to school.  I’ve never ridden so fast in all my life.  Why I didn’t get off my bike and remove the creature, I’ll never know.  These seemingly trivial memories were important to me at the time and have stuck with me.

In the school holidays, Mum would often take us to a movie at Civic Cinemas.  Firstly, we’d go to Woolworths, which was right near where the merry-go-round still is today, and choose some lollies.  After the movie, we’d return to Woolworths, but this time venturing upstairs to the cafeteria, where we’d eat lunch (usually a meat pie or some other such delicacy).

Once, when I was old enough to go to a movie without Mum, my friends and I got into a fight with another group of girls, over some trivial matter that I can’t recall (but I can confirm there were Maltesers being thrown back and forth between the groups), and running out of the cinema at the end of the movie to Mum’s ‘getaway car’ on Bunda Street.  Clearly in those days, parking was no issue. (pic above right from ‘Threepaws’ at the-riotact.com)

Then there are the memories surrounding my journey from childhood to adulthood; my formative, teenage years.  In the summer time, school holidays and weekends, as soon as I’d wake up, I would pull my bedroom curtain back to check the weather situation.  I would stare at the clouds, willing them to move on.  Sometimes we went to the Macquarie pool (now Big Splash) and other times to Civic pool.  I remember doing ‘pinnies’ of top tower, but never having the guts to do bombs, like the boys in the board shorts.  I can still remember the feeling of freedom the first time I walked with friends from the bus interchange to the pool, finally without someone’s mother having to drive us!

I remember thinking how cool I was accompanying my older sister to arthouse movies at ‘Electric Shadows’ – a small, independent Cinema on City Walk (near where Shop Handmade is now), ‘known for its quirky programming style and its informal atmosphere.’  It closed in 2006 and merged with the Dendy group.  I used to wonder which cinema we’d be in, the red one or the blue one.  The first movie I recall seeing at ‘the shads’ was Repo Man, in 1984, starring Emilio Estevez.

I’ve got many lasting memories from my time at Uni, too; particularly my first year, which I spent living on campus at Ursula College (now Ursula Hall).  The friends I made during this year are still among my closest.  Although I struggle to remember what subjects I took, I do remember more significant events, such as my first O-Week and first ‘Bar Crawl.’  When I first started my degree, the bar was upstairs and very grungy.  I remember having to learn to drink beer, because it was always going cheap (or free, by the keg, at some parties).  By the time I’d get to the end of the schooner, it was always warm and disgusting.  But, I persevered and conquered.

I remember having to avoid my Italian tutor, who also lived at the college, because I hadn’t yet handed in my major assignment, and had instead forged a doctor’s certificate and scrawled the words ‘glandular fever’ upon it.  Under these conditions, it would not have done for him to see me cavorting around the corridors with my usual gay abandon.

The part-time jobs I had growing up have also stayed clear in my mind.  My first was at Hansel & Gretel, chocolate and coffee merchants, in the Belconnen Mall.  It was right near where K-Mart is today (I think there’s a jewellery store there now).  I use to love working Friday nights, as all my friends would either drop by and say ‘hi’ or would themselves be working in the Mall and we would catch up at the end of our shifts.

At Uni I worked in a department store at the top of the Monaro Mall, now the sprawling Canberra Centre, in Civic (pic: National Archives).  The store was originally Marcus Clarke & Co., then Waltons, but when I was there I think it was called Venture.  The supermarket in this Mall was Coles New World.  By the way, did you know that Monaro Mall was Australia’s first multi-storey, covered shopping mall?

During this time, I also worked at Waffles, which was connected to The Private Bin on Northbourne Avenue.  I’ll never forget the cornflower blue skirts we had to wear.  Still, it was better than the skimpy, halter-neck top my friend had to wear to work ‘upstairs’ at the Bin.  I would never have braved such a job.

Canberra has moved on a bit since those days.  I become a bit wistful when I visit the National Museum, where the hospital once was.  I miss that place of my youth.  But, time marches on and things change.  Sometimes, the places we once knew disappear.  But we will always have our memories.

(Incidentally, I was one of those stupid people positioned in a paddleboat on the lake at the time of the ill-fated hospital implosion of 1997.  I heard pieces of shrapnel land right behind us).

What are your most treasured memories growing up?  Are you ever overcome by a desire to revisit your past?  Are the places you grew up around still there?

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11 Responses to The Way We Were…memories of Canberra

Belladonna says: 10 August, 2012 at 8:50 am

Hi Sonia, thanks for sharing your wonderful childhood memories. I loved reading about early Canberra! I’ve only been here since 2010 so it’s great to hear about what Canberra used to be like many, many years ago! The name Electric Shadows rings a bell-I think my Canberra-born-and-bred husband must have mentioned it to me once!…I have lots of favourite childhood memories, even from the earliest days when my family lived in the poor neighbourhood in Manila, Philippines, where I was born until we left in 1979 and started a new life here in Australia. I think one of the best memories I have of my early life in Manila was living above a little cornershop. The shopkeeper would always give my brothers and I free lollies! That might explain my sugar addiction…

Eloise Arellano says: 10 August, 2012 at 12:56 pm

How lovely to reminisce on our lovely Canberra. Born and bred in the Valley, and saw the expansion of what it is today. Growing up in Wanniassa, which apart from Kambah it was the southernmost part of Canberra at the time – Erindale was just in the making.
I have fond memories of waiting for dad on those hot sunny summer afternoon (before air-condition) so we could head out to PINE ISLAND. This by the way would take us about 30-40mins to get to because we had to go bush to get there. All those misspent afternoons going yabbying, in the creeks that were still in Tuggeranong.
I remember there actually being a “clock” at the CLOCK COURT IN WODEN, and having AliBaba was our family Friday night treat. How my Canberra has changed but it still is a beautiful city – well to me it is.

C says: 10 August, 2012 at 1:43 pm

What a great article and sharing those photos – hilarious! I was only just telling my kids some of the things that used to be around when I was a kid growing up in Canberra.

The things I remember:

– Having picnics down at weston park. All those little ponds with the cute little bridges over the top, now it’s just a barren dustbowl. And that concrete structure that my sisters and I would play in right near it – boy did that smell of urine!

– When woden plaza changed it’s name to woden square or something like that and how so many people were unhappy. They changed it back pretty soon after.

– Having a book of bus tickets – they were pale pink

– The drive in out in Watson and going to see Grease

How fun to remember all those little things.

kate says: 11 August, 2012 at 4:37 pm

What a great read, Sonia! Your memories are described so vividly I felt I’d been transported back to that earlier version of Canberra, even if I wasn’t actually here myself. But there are some memories of the time which I can share, such as working on a Friday night though I worked at the less prestigious Wollies!

Hopefully my kids will one day have similar warm, positive memories of growing up here.

TrickyT says: 12 August, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Thanks for the walk down memory lane Sonia, your description of days gone by in Canberra were spot on with mine, the cinemas, pools and malls 🙂 I also remember the popular radio stations and gimmicks, such as the 2CA ‘Brothers of Rock’ and the 2CC club I forget the name of, but remember when a James Bond movie came out members could get in for 7c, yep, that’s seven cents folks! I remember Wanniassa too Eloise, being the edge of southside and the jingle for “Wanniassa, Wanniassa, Wanniassa myyyyyyyy shopping centre!”

Justine says: 6 February, 2013 at 10:44 am

Awwww thanks for sharing your memories, I am loving that I have stumbled upon this brilliant blog of yours – I also have such fond memories of growing up in the ‘berra and especially of my first couple of years at Ursula College where I was lucky enough to meet you. I too am wistful for the Canberra of my youth, I love your writing & I am so proud of you and will be following all of your articles from now on. Plus I have a sneaky suspicion that I have even rated a mention in this piece…heeeeyyyy…it wasn’t THAT skimpy (ok ok, it was – who am I kidding?!!)

Tara says: 1 July, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Thanks Sonia! Sorry to bring up such an old thread but I couldn’t resist:) I too grew up in Canberra (in the 80s and early 90s). I grew up in chapman and remember visiting Woden plaza with my mum and dad, picking up my older siblings from Big W after Friday night shopping. Eventually I worked there too! That was after working at Mr Whippy in the Farmers Market (the same people owned Fantasy Donuts!) I was a skateboarder and hung out at Surf Scene religiously (always looking, never buying:) and I used to skate the skate parks at Woden and the newly built one at Belco too! But getting back to Woden, I remember The Danish Hotdog place near the front carpark and Woolworths variety on the lower level. I also loved to ride horses and would have a week long riding camp once a year at Marcel’s on Lady Denman Drive. I loved the pine forests that we used to ride through, I also learned to ride there, not to mention consumed illegal substances there too! Canberra was the best, I’ll move back someday. I still see it as being home.

Alena says: 14 September, 2013 at 12:53 pm

…it’s great to go on this memory lane, Canberra was just a ‘dag’ in those days, but also very relaxed and easy going.
I loved working at the original Woodstock with owners Mr and Mrs Steinich who also owned Bon Marche delicatessen.
I loved how there were so many more people strolling ‘outside’ in Civic eventhough we had the famous Monaro Mall, the first multi-storey shopping mall, with the best milkbar downstairs…wish I could remember the name?!

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